Phoebe Waller-Bridge juggles the sacred and the profane in her returning dramcom
Hitchcock defined suspense as a bomb under a table, tick-tick-tickling the audience’s nerves while characters on screen talk toward impending doom. On Fleabag, nobody needs an explosive device. In the Britcom’s season 2 premiere, six adults smiling in a restaurant are six bombs with lit fuses.
Creator-star-savant Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the titular nuke, a never-named Londoner grieving between debaucheries. In season 1, she was a self-declared #BadFeminist and sex-very-positive hedonist. A year later, she’s exercising, eating salad, avoiding casual hookups. Her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), is self-improving too, off the sauce and on the wagon with husband Martin (Brett Gelman). The siblings force congeniality with their dad (Bill Paterson) and his vain fiancée (Olivia Colman, gleaming with malice). The family sits down for dinner with the cool, sweary Catholic priest (Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott) who will officiate the holy matrimony of Father and Evil Stepmother.
What follows is one of 2019’s best TV episodes, a one-act spiral of unrepressed hostility. Then comes the religious awakening. The fourth-wall-breaking Fleabag strikes up an unusual [wink to camera] friendship [pout to camera] with the priest, who enjoys late-night meaning-of-life chats over cans of gin and tonic. “I don’t believe in God,” our heroine explains, and a painting falls off the priest’s wall in response. She’s drawn to the holy man, for reasons saintly and blasphemous.
The turn toward religion is one of the single most unexpected plotlines I can remember in a successful TV show this decade. It’s deeply humane even when it’s not entirely successful. Scott’s playing a tricky character, a chatty sad-sack dreamboat unattainably devoted to the Almighty. He’s unquestionably the coolest fictional priest in decades, and if certain aspects of his personality strain credulity, the actor is definitely an able counterpart for the title character.
And Waller-Bridge herself is a lacerating screenwriter and an invigorating performer. Some people can do it all, and Waller-Bridge earned buzz last year showrunning Killing Eve, which seems a bit lost without her in season 2. General acclaim led showbiz powers to plug her into the Star Wars and James Bond franchises, but she’s returned to her own star vehicle with confessional absurdity intact. Surely this is the first time anyone has called a Quaker meeting “very, very erotic.” And when she talks onscreen about “the screaming void inside my empty heart,” you want to cry and laugh.
These six episodes are the end for Fleabag, Waller-Bridge has said. And some wrap-up elements are conventional after season 1’s primal scream. Gelman’s sleaze is fully inhuman, a walking personification of the Joker trailer. There’s a slight layer of old-school quirk lurking about, as when Fleabag explains that her newly successful café has a popular “Chatty Wednesday” event.
But Clifford and Waller-Bridge are a transcendent sister act. And the spiritual plotline is transgressive, even Bergman-esque. Heck, pick your Bergman! Waller-Bridge’s writing conjures Ingmar’s painful religious inquisition, while her performance suggests Ingrid’s dazzling beating-heart complexity. Her rapid-fire quips deepen her sincere portrait of a 33-year-old seeking meaning in all the wrong-right places. “What had Jesus done by 33?” one character asks midway through the season. Well, he never wrote Fleabag. B+